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Unreality on your local newscast

Deggans
DEGGANS
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By ERIC DEGGANS

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 26, 2001


The next time you're watching the local news on TV, stop for a moment and think about the people you see in a typical day.

Go back to the TV. If you live, work or play in the area's main urban centers, chances are the ethnic and cultural diversity you see on your newscast won't match your real-life experience.

New U.S. Census data shows significant and increasing diversity in the Tampa Bay area's biggest cities: Clearwater has 20 percent minority population (for this purposes of this story, that includes black, Hispanic, Asian and American Indian people). St. Petersburg has nearly 30 percent minority population and Tampa boasts nearly 50 percent.

Pinellas' Hispanic population doubled in 10 years, while Hillsborough's Hispanic population increased by 68 percent during the same period.

But the world of local TV news is a bit whiter.

A look at the on-air talent listed on WTVT-Ch. 13's Web site reveals 13 percent are black or Hispanic (no Asian Americans or American Indians). At WTSP-Ch. 10, the tally of people of color on air is closer to 16 percent; the roster for ABC affiliate WFTS-Ch. 28 stands at 21 percent, which includes four staffers of color among 19 listed.

(The station's Web sites were used because WTSP, WTVT and WFTS declined to provide figures on the diversity of their newsrooms for this story, citing privacy concerns or corporate policies. The FCC recently dropped rules requiring TV outlets to keep detailed diversity statistics for the public, after its Equal Employment Opportunity rules were struck down by a federal court.)

WFLA-Ch. 8 released figures Monday showing 21 percent of its newsroom staffers -- including off-air positions -- are black, Hispanic or Asian. At Pinellas Park-based cable newschannel Bay News 9, the total newsroom tally of minorities is higher: 25 percent.

Area newspapers are in worse shape, in terms of diversity. Figures from The St. Petersburg Times indicate just over 10 percent of the newspaper's nearly 350-member editorial staff are people of color. At The Tampa Tribune, that total is closer to 8 percent.

Why the obsession with numbers? Some experts say a diverse news staff can provide much-needed access to under-covered communities. Stories demanding a subtler take on race issues or a depth of knowledge may also be handled better.

And even though some studies say viewers really don't care what race their news anchors are, Rod Fowler, news director at Bay News 9, said news consumers notice when diversity is lacking.

"It's simple . . . you've got to reflect the population that you serve," Fowler said. "If you don't, sooner or later you're going to lose viewers."

Complicating things further: The 10-county area reached by all TV stations is much less diverse than the cities. In that larger area, stretching from Citrus County to Sarasota County, and east to Polk County, black and Hispanic residents comprise just about 20 percent of the population, according to Census figures.

And looking just at people who appear on air -- while a fair gauge of what viewers may perceive -- ignores photographers, producers and others working on newscasts.

"If you have a photographer behind the scenes affecting coverage, you're saying that (person) doesn't count," said Forrest Carr, hired as news director at WFLA in March.

Carr prefers to concentrate on the news he's generating: "You have to ask, 'Is your news organization really telling you what's happening in your community?' You have to create systems so that people can have input on the news process. Otherwise, you don't get the benefit of your staff's diversity. Nobody has ever asked me, 'What are you doing with the diversity you've got?' "

Retention remains an issue in newspapers, with recent figures from the American Society of Newspaper Editors showing a small decline in the number of minority journalists working at newspapers nationwide for the first time in 23 years -- mostly because more people of color are leaving the business than entering it.

"I simply don't understand why so many top editors are so willing to mouth the right words but go into their offices and do the same things," noted Will Sutton, an editor at the Raleigh, N.C., News & Observer newspaper and president of the National Association of Black Journalists, in a statement on ASNE's study. "If this were an advertising, circulation or a general revenue problem, I'm sure more people would be paying attention."

As vice president/print of the Tampa Bay Association of Black Communicators (a chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists), I have worked for years to help add ethnic diversity to local news staffs and improve coverage of ethnic and race issues.

Tonight, top news executives from all area TV stations with news departments, along with editors of the Tampa Tribune, St. Petersburg Times and the Weekly Planet will gather at a public forum I helped organize to talk about these issues.

Held at 7 p.m. in the University of South Florida's Campus Activities Center (601 Second St. S, St. Petersburg), the forum is the second such event co-sponsored by the TBABC and the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. It is open to the public, and we'll welcome audience questions.

To be sure, local TV news outlets have had success stories since we last gathered to discuss these issues one year ago.

Last year, then WFLA-Ch. 8 news vice president Dan Bradley was repeatedly reminded of the station's derisive "News White 8" nickname by viewers angry that it had no black people in on-air jobs. WFLA has since hired three people of color: weekend anchor Byron Brown, reporter Rod Carter and weekend anchor Nerissa Prest.

WTSP-Ch. 10, which featured anchor Reginald Roundtree as its sole black on-air employee last year, has added reporter De Anna Sheffield and hired a black woman as executive producer of its morning newscast. Bay News 9 features the only minority woman anchoring news in late evening and late night weekdays, TBABC president Susan Casper.

But the state's only black news director left Bay News 9 (and Florida) earlier this year. Most area TV news outlets have no people of color on their weather or sports staffs.

In fact, no person of color fills any of the top three jobs -- general manager, news director or program director -- at any local TV outlet with a news department (except WVEA-Ch. 62's newscast on the area's Spanish-language Univision affiliate).

Weekend newscasts continue to be known by some TV people as the "weekend ghetto," because that's where WFLA, WFTS and WTVT have parked minority anchors.

And since the departure of biracial sports anchor Sage Steele, WFTS only has one black on-air employee: reporter/weekend anchor Kelly Swoope.

The calls I get from viewers assure me the situation is noticed.

Sally Strail says she got frustrated last year when WFLA-Ch. 8 went two months without any black people among its on air staffers, following the departure of a black reporter and anchor.

"The lack of diversity here has turned me from a (TV) news junkie to someone who . . . when my husband falls asleep with the mute button on, I leave it that way," said Strail, 64, a Hernando County resident who is white.

Dentist Leroy McCloud got so angry over WFLA's lack of black faces last year that he put signs in his St. Petersburg office and his truck showing a red circle with a line through "Ch. 8."

After Brown and Carter were hired, he got over his anger. But he remains wary.

"It almost surprised me when they hired two new black folks over there," said McCloud, who is black. "So I've gotten over being (angry) at them. But that doesn't mean you can stop paying attention to what they do."

At WFTS, general manager Sam Stallworth admits the station faces challenges regarding its diversity levels. But rather than make promises now, he suggests looking at the station six months from now to see how well they do.

"My on-air people will reflect this marketplace, and currently, they don't," added Stallworth, who started work at WFTS in January. "We have an obligation to do that."

There is no question that the stories each news outlet creates are its most important gauge of performance. But it's hard to imagine how area media can present a balanced portrait of the Tampa Bay area if their staffing doesn't keep pace with the real world.

-- To reach Eric Deggans, call (727) 893-8521, e-mail deggans@sptimes.com or see the St. Petersburg Times Web site at http://www.sptimes.com.

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